Books

Surviving marriage

Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her inviting new book, is so unpredictable that not even birds that mate for life can succeed at it 100 percent of the time. That’s right. According to Gilbert’s research, even seagull partners, supposedly destined to spend their lives scavenging and screeching and pestering beachgoers together, have a 25 percent divorce rate because they just can’t get along.

“Which is to say,” Gilbert writes with more than a dab of irony, “that one-quarter of all seagull couples fail in their first relationships — failing to the point that they must separate due to irreconcilable differences.” If birds can’t stay together, she wonders, how can easily distracted human beings fare better?

How to survive the state of matrimony — especially when one wants nothing more than to live happily ever after with a kindred soul minus all the legal mumbo jumbo — is the subject of Gilbert’s “Committed,” an engaging sequel to her best-selling “Eat, Pray, Love,” a book-club staple published in more than 30 languages.

In “Eat, Pray, Love,” Gilbert — also author of the National Book Award finalist “The Last American Man” and two works of fiction — traveled the world in search of emotional and spiritual contentment. In “Committed,” she has found them — at least until Homeland Security intervenes by threatening to deport her beloved Felipe, a Brazilian whose Australian passport does not guarantee serial entrance to and exit from the United States.

The best solution to a visa problem, an officer tells Gilbert, is to get married. But she and Felipe — surely the most affable partner on the planet, given his prominence in not one but two memoirs — are divorced and would rather not enter into such a commitment again.

Thus Gilbert is propelled to investigate the intricacies of marriage, learning about the institution’s early Christian roots — despite what social conservatives may think, the early church preferred followers who eschewed procreation, not exactly the best way to make more Christians — to its modern incarnations around the world. She reads books; studies changing laws, mores and habits; talks to people with wide varieties of experience: American homemakers, Laotian newlyweds, perplexed Hmong grandmothers who have no idea why anyone would ask when they first fell in love with their husbands. In their culture, marriage is not “a vast, complex, and epic Story of the Emotional Self,” writes Gilbert.

“Whatever the details,” she notes sagely, “you can be certain that the modern Western woman’s love story will have been examined by her from every possible angle, and that, over the years, her narrative will have been either hammered into a golden epic myth or embalmed into a bitter cautionary tale.”

“Committed” is not a sociological work. There is no bibliography, and no footnotes slow you down. The book is bright and easygoing, propelled by Gilbert’s lively curiosity; it’s amusing, chatty and often insightful. It also provides a forum by which the opinionated Gilbert can vent about various issues: what sociologists call the “Marriage Benefit Imbalance,” which indicates that “women generally lose in the exchange of marriage vows, while men win big”; same-sex marriage, which Gilbert believes will eventually be legalized because marriage in the United States “is a secular concern, not a religious one,” and motherhood, which she wants no part of.

“Unlike so many of my friends, I did not ache with longing whenever I saw an infant. (Though I did ache with longing, it is true, whenever I saw a good used-book shop.)”

“Committed” poses a lot of questions but arrives at few conclusions. Still, Gilbert comes to understand some things, none of them terribly surprising or profound: Studies show that the later you get married, the better the chance that you won’t get divorced. Nobody can determine whether you should have kids.

Some career women say children are the most vital elements in their lives, while Gilbert’s mother admits that her best years began once her daughters were grown and out of the house. And, most daunting of all: Any time a society lets its citizens freely choose whom they marry, divorce rates skyrocket. So choose wisely. Preferably when you’re over 50.

But despite such bad news, Gilbert turns the sticky questions of “Committed” into a celebration of individuality, dedication and love. Raise a glass, then. Perhaps marriage isn’t just for the birds after all.

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